Detroit makes community college free

Underemployment rate for college grads drops

Detroit high schoolers just got a free ticket to community college.

Starting this year, any graduating high school senior who is accepted to one of Detroit’s five community colleges won’t have to pay a dime for tuition.

The Detroit Promise Zone program, officially launched on Tuesday, will make it possible. At first the funds will come from a private scholarship foundation. But starting in 2018, some of the money will come from property taxes already earmarked for the program.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a high school senior preparing for college now or a second-grader whose college career is years away. The Detroit Promise will be there to help make a college education a reality,” said Mayor Mike Duggan.

He hopes that the program will eventually expand to cover the cost of four years of college tuition at a state school for each Detroit student.

Related: Tennessee is picking up the tab for community college students

To be eligible, a student must have completed their junior and senior years at a public, private or charter high school in Detroit. It doesn’t matter how much their family earns, but the student must fill out the federal financial aid form called the FAFSA. The Detroit program will pick up the difference after any other federal and state grants and scholarships have been used.

About 500 students are expected to take advantage of the program and enroll at a community college each fall, according to a spokesman for the Detroit Regional Chamber, which helps administer the scholarship.

It will cost an average of $680 per person, annually, though each scholarship amount will vary depending on how much in other awards the student received.

Related: How New York City would make community college free

The privately funded Detroit Scholarship program is already in place and has granted 2,000 students free tuition over the past three years. The Michigan Education Excellence Foundation raised the funds from a mix of companies, charitable foundations, and individuals.

But now that the Detroit Promise Zone has officially launched, scholarship funding will eventually move away from private donations toward earmarked tax funds. There isn’t an exact timeline for that transition, a spokesman said.

Detroit is one of 10 “promise zones” the state created in 2009 as a way to send more Michigan residents to college. The programs designate a share of state property taxes within the zone to pay for the scholarships.

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“We are confident that Detroit’s future will be even brighter now that our city’s future leaders will be able to go to college at no cost,” said Detroit Promise Zone Authority Board Chairwoman Penny Bailer.

Tuition-free college is an idea that’s gaining traction. While President Obama has pushed for it nationally, Tennessee made community college tuition-free for graduating seniors last fall, and Oregon is set to launch a similar program next year.

High school seniors must register for the Detroit Scholarship Fund online by June 30 to be eligible.

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